For a while, this looked like trouble for Georgia Tech. Through one half Saturday, Wake Forest did what it wanted.
The Demon Deacons ran the ball 15 times in the first half, failed to gain yardage only once and piled up 93 rushing yards total. On three touchdown drives out of four possessions, they needed third down just three times. Defensively, while Tech B-back KirVonte Benson was plugging along – 12 carries, 75 yards – not much else was working for the Yellow Jackets. All plays where Benson wasn’t carrying the ball were averaging four yards per play. Wake Forest defensive end Duke Ejiofor had wrecked the Jackets with three sacks.
But Tech responded in a way that it hasn’t always. It reversed the course of the game and won going away. A team that speaks often of finishing and has lost both of its games this season on account of being unable to do so, chased down the Demon Deacons with a ferocious defensive effort and offensive play that was both electric and pummeling.
“We were frustrated because we knew we hadn’t been playing to our ability, so a lot of us came in and just tried to rally the guys, let ’em know, ‘Hey, when we go out in the second half, we need to pick up the energy, pick up the intensity and things’ll start falling our way,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “And they did.”
With an impressive second half, Tech gave its alumni a 38-24 homecoming win at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It didn’t look at all a likely outcome in the first half, as the Jackets were down 21-10 with 1:02 remaining in the half and 21-13 at halftime.
“I think we had way more energy in the second half that in the first half,” coach Paul Johnson said. “There was a little more sense of urgency.”
While the idea that Johnson’s option offense can’t come from behind to win has been demonstrated to be a flawed assessment – the Jackets’ win over Georgia last year after trailing 27-14 midway through the fourth quarter serving as the latest reminder – the truth of the matter is that this was the sort of game that Tech hasn’t won recently.
The Jackets have lost games when they grabbed early leads only to give them up down the stretch. The losses to Tennessee and Miami fit that mold. But to find a game where Tech trailed by double digits in the first half and rallied to win, you’d have to go back to the 2015 homecoming game, the memorable 22-16 upset of Florida State. To find the last instance where Tech so thoroughly turned the tide of the game as it did Saturday would require deeper digging.
And for Tech fans hopeful that the one-point losses to Tennessee and Miami are indications of competitiveness and potential, Saturday’s win uncovered more reason to believe that the Jackets have more to give over the final five games, three of them against teams in the top 14 – No. 7 Clemson next Saturday, No. 14 Virginia Tech November 11 and No. 3 Georgia November 25.
“This team is a fighter,” Benson said. “We handle adversity very well.”
The turnaround in Tech’s defensive play was astonishing. Johnson said that players weren’t aligned in the right spots in the first half against Wake Forest’s up-tempo offense.
“We just talked about it at halftime – I don’t care what defense we play, I just want to able to line up,” he said. “And we did that and some guys made some plays defensively in the first half.”
Linebacker Victor Alexander said that the key to handling Wake Forest’s option game after halftime was to slow down. Running back Cade Carney’s patience in waiting for holes to open that the Jackets’ pursuit worked against the Jackets, he said.
“We’re used to filling (gaps) quick,” Alexander said. “Hurry up to the line of scrimmage and push ’em back. So for me, personally, I had to slow it down and really read my keys and just get to the ballcarrier as a defense. We had to all do the same thing. We were just playing it too fast.”
Carney carried 10 times for 70 yards in the first half and nine times for 22 yards in the second, with gaps filled by the likes of defensive linemen Brentavious Glanton, Desmond Branch and KeShun Freeman. Prior to Saturday, Tech opponents were 6 of 8 on fourth downs, including Miami’s gut-wrenching pickup of a fourth-and-10 in the final minute last week. But the Jackets stopped Wake Forest on three consecutive second-half possessions Saturday with effective play calling and execution.
Offensively, Tech wore out Wake Forest in the second half, running for 296 yards on 32 carries after scraping for 131 yards on 34 carries in the first half. The Jackets cracked Wake Forest for scoring runs of 49 (Marshall), 42 (A-back Qua Searcy) and 70 (Marshall again) yards on dazzling plays of speed and perimeter blocking, while Benson did the dirty work. He added to his 75 yards in the first half with 61 and a touchdown on 14 carries in the second, giving him 136 rushing yards, his fourth 100-yard game. The guard-center-guard trio of Parker Braun, Kenny Cooper and Shamire Devine again asserted itself with power and deft pulls.
“You’re not always going to be in the lead,” Marshall said. “It’s good to go through adversity and see how guys react. Some guys sometimes, they kind of get down, so you have to make sure everybody stays up, stays poised and then just come out and execute and stay calm.”
While Virginia and Duke appear less threatening than they did previously – the Cavaliers were routed at home by Boston College Saturday while the Blue Devils have lost four in a row – Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia are all candidates to go up early on the Jackets and threaten to run away.
Beyond moving Tech to 3-1 in the ACC as they try to keep pressure on ACC Coastal Division leader Miami, the Jackets might also gain some confidence in overcoming a slow start. A repeat next Saturday likely would be a steeper climb at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, but it could be beneficial experience all the same.
Said linebacker Victor Alexander, “This team here is a very strong team, and we stick together very well.”